Elizabeth Cady Stanton
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Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the founders of the organized women’s movement in the United States, was one of six children born to Daniel and Margaret Cady in Johnstown, New York in 1815. Her father was a lawyer and the family was well-to-do. Stanton received a good education and excelled in her studies. When she was young, her father expressed dismay that she was not a boy. This comment both hurt and motivated Stanton. She wanted to attend Union College but could not because of her gender. Instead, she attended Troy Female Seminary, a school started by Emma Hart Willard, an American women’s rights activist. Unlike other colleges for women, the seminary offered a rigorous education rather than functioning as a finishing school for soon-to-be-married middle and upper class women.
Stanton’s political education began in the anti-slavery movement. Her cousin Gerrit Smith was an active abolitionist and through him she learned about and joined the New York State Anti-Slavery Society. She met her husband Henry B. Stanton through her work as an abolitionist. They married in 1840, in part so they could travel to London together to attend an anti-slavery convention.
Two significant things occurred on this trip. Stanton met her friend and collaborator, the Quaker reformer Lucretia Mott, who introduced her to women’s rights issues. She was also struck by the fact that women were not allowed to speak at the anti-slavery convention.
In 1847, Stanton moved to Seneca Falls, NY. The following year, she and Mott organized the first women’s rights convention. The "Declaration of Sentiments," drafted for the occasion, is one of the founding texts of the women’s rights movement. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence, it enumerated the ways in which women were denied basic civil and economic liberty and included the demand for women’s suffrage and an end to double standards in sexual morality. At the Seneca Falls Convention, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a rousing speech comparing the plight of women to that of African Americans and whole-heartedly endorsing the suffrage proposition, which many considered far too radical. Sixty-eight women and 32 men signed the document.
Stanton met the temperance reformer Susan B. Anthony in 1851 and joined her newly founded Woman’s New York State Temperance Society the following year. The intimate relationship between the temperance movement and the nascent suffrage movement is often presented as proof of the latter’s inherent conservatism and religiosity. But this interpretation elides some of the more radical aspects of the temperance movement itself. Temperance was one of the first mass reform movements largely run by women, providing an entire generation with experience in political organizing. It is the first instance of women moving from the private to the public sphere in large numbers and an arguable forerunner to the feminist adage "the personal is political." At a time when women had no control over their persons or their property – including any wages they earned – alcoholic husbands were a serious physical and economic threat to their livelihood and welfare and that of their children. The temperance movement was thus the first to organize around issues that specifically affected the lives of women – such as domestic abuse, the lack of legal divorce and the inequity of coverture laws that denied married women the right to own and control property.
During the 1850s, influenced by the concerns of the temperance movement, Stanton devoted most of her attention to the rights of married women. In 1854, she became the first woman to address the New York Legislature,where she presented an omnibus women’s rights bill. A decade later, she again addressed the legislature, this time comparing the status of married women to that of slaves. The legislature adopted large portions of the bill, including improvements to inheritance laws and the recognition that mothers had equal legal rights over their children. Voting rights, however, remained elusive.
Following the Civil War, Stanton helped to found the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). AERA’s mission combined the goals of the women’s rights and anti-slavery movements in an effort to win equal rights, including suffrage, for both women and African Americans. Stanton expected women to be rewarded for their loyalty to the Union and the abolitionist cause and was disappointed by the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment – which granted the franchise to black men but not to women.
At this point, the perennially referenced racism of suffragists publicly emerged. The organization ultimately collapsed in 1869 following a debate between Lucy Stone and Frederick Douglass, during which Stone announced her ultimate support for the Fifteenth Amendment despite its offensive exclusion of women. Stanton and Anthony, among others, found it appalling that uneducated black men would be trusted with political participation when highly educated white women were not. The two women left to co-found the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) when it became clear that black male suffrage and women’s suffrage would not be granted at the same time.
Other members of the AERA, such as Stone and Julia Ward Howe – while equally dismayed by the lack of support shown by their erstwhile abolitionist allies – ultimately accepted and defended the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. They split with Anthony and Stanton over the issue and founded the American Women’s Suffrage Association (AWSA). The schism between the two organizations would continue for more than 20 years.
Stanton and Anthony, meanwhile, continued to run the NWSA together. They also began a newspaper, Revolution, to which Stanton was the main contributor as well as the editor. She provoked controversy through her continual criticism of the Republican Party’s lack of support for women’s rights, as well as her support for the worker's right to strike and for advocacy of equal pay laws. Stanton continued to advocate women’s suffrage, as well as writing and lecturing on a host of women’s issues such as divorce law, women’s education and sexuality.
Stanton died in 1902 at the age of 86. Her daughter, Harriet Stanton Blatch, succeeded her as a leading organizer of the women’s suffrage movement and in 1890, with Alice Stone Blackwell (Lucy Stone’s daughter), reunited the two suffrage organizations that their mothers had founded. With two million members, the resulting National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was a leading force behind the resurgence of the women's suffrage cause during and after World War I. American women finally won the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment by the required three-quarters of the states in 1920, 72 years after the Seneca Falls Convention.
Written by Rebecca H. Lossin, Ph.D. candidate in Communications, Columbia Journalism School, Columbia University
Jessup, Molly. “Stanton, Elizabeth Cady,” Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History, Vol. 3, William G Shade, ed. Washington DC: CQ Press. 2010
Rappaport, Helen. "Blatch, Harriot Stanton," Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, ABC-CLIO, 2001
Wellman, Judith. The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman's Rights Convention, University of Illinois Press, 2004
Women in American History: A Social, Political and Cultural Encyclopedia and Document Collection. A. Lamphier and Rosanne Welch, eds., ABC-CLIO 2017